Acevo's Lesley-Anne Alexander urges Charity Commission to support and cherish sector

The charity leaders body's chair tells the annual conference, attended by the regulator's chief, Paula Sussex, that the commission 'shoots from the hip'

Lesley-Anne Alexander
Lesley-Anne Alexander

The chair and vice-chair of the charity leaders group Acevo have called on the Charity Commission to support and cherish charities, rather than simply focus on compliance and enforcement.

Lesley-Anne Alexander, chair of Acevo and chief executive of the RNIB, gave the closing speech at yesterday’s Acevo annual conference in London, at which it launched its Free Society manifesto.

"I would like a Charity Commission that is fit for purpose," said Alexander – the third of six things she said the charity sector needed in the next parliament. "We’ve got a commission that should support and cherish charities, because in this way you will support the sector, but it says wild and wacky things and shoots from the hip."

Immediately before Alexander’s speech, the conference heard from Paula Sussex, chief executive of the commission.

Sussex outlined her vision for a more proactive and risk-based regulator, and said she had been emphasising to her staff the importance of speed in their case work and other dealings with charities.

Virginia Beardshaw, Alexander’s deputy at Acevo and chief executive of the children’s communication charity I Can, who was chairing the session, told Sussex: "We need a regulator that cherishes us and challenges us, but that means getting the balance right on compliance."

Beardshaw urged Sussex to understand the importance of an independent campaigning voice for charities. "The roots go deep into history: the end of slavery, votes for women and the abolition of child labour would not have happened without organisations like us in their time," she said.

Barbara Frost, chief executive of the development charity WaterAid, said from the floor that she also felt the commission did not acknowledge the role charities had played in changing the UK.

Sir Tim Smit, executive vice-chairman and co-founder of the Eden Project, said the commission was focusing its energies more on dealing with compliance than on protecting the rights of charities.

He asked Sussex: "Is there a danger that, although you do bite in very gentle, duck-like ways, you actually become like the Daily Mail and you don't have the anger that you should – you don’t bite where you should?"

Sussex responded that she was unsure of what exactly Smit’s question was. She said: "Our primary focus, as you know, is public trust and confidence."

Introducing Sussex, Beardshaw had expressed sympathy for the commission over the amount of criticism it had received from government and other public bodies.

Sussex said she hoped to make the commission more effective. "I very much look forward to the day when the commission isn't the focus," she said.

Also on Alexander’s list of things the sector needed were better support and understanding from politicians, and less pressure to imitate the private sector. "I would like a minister that doesn't think we all need masterclasses from the private sector," she said. "I struggle with the arrogance of this ideal."

Alexander said she wanted more innovation from the sector, more collaboration and less in-fighting among charities, and less regulation in general. Alongside the commission, she said, the RNIB was regulated by several other bodies, including the Care Quality Commission, the Privy Council and others. "You all want something different from us and it gets in the way," she said.

Ending her speech with a reference to Acevo’s manifesto, she said: "So in conclusion, what do I want? I want to exit the big society and enter the free society."

In January, Alexander will be succeeded as chair of Acevo by Paul Farmer of the mental health charity Mind, and Beardshaw by Sharon Allen of the social care workforce development charity Skills For Care.

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